Wednesday, 3 August 2011

You knew it was brewing: Starbucks in Ubud

Caught up with Ryan Ver Berkmoes last Sunday. He's the co-author of Lonely Planet Bali & Lombok, and we'd first exchanged emails last year when he wanted to review "Cowboys in Paradise" for the guide's 2011 edition. On route from Bali to Portland, Journeyman Berkmoes had a few hours to kill in Singapore, so a round of drinks were in order.

After knocking my beloved Austin ("I don't care! It's still in Texas!"), he updated me on the goings-on in Ubud. X wrote another book, Y launched a donation drive for a new children's charity, there's now a Starbucks in Ubud, and there's an expat who -- Wait, what?! Starbucks?

Turns out it was only news to me. The Mother of Third Spaces set shop in Ubud a while back. Come to think of it, is it even news if you, me and everyone we know saw it coming? Where did we think those "retrace Elizabeth Gilbert's footsteps" tours would lead?

And why just pick on Self-Fulfilled Liz for the hell she unleashed. I know, I know, it's fun but...

The question was never whether Ubud was touristy (it was), but whether its brand of commercialism was crass (it wasn't, until it was.) Hell, the very notion of Ubud being the island's spiritual centre, the balm for rat race-weary Westerners and the muse for artists seeking inspiration was an image carefully cultivated by Walter Spies et al in the 1920s. (Recommended read: "Bali: A Paradise Created" by Adrian Vickers.)

Am I disheartened that there's now a Starbucks in Ubud? Yup.

But then globalization has no regard for how I feel. As a Texan pal used to say, "You can build a town and call it No Fucking McDonald's, but the bastards will just buy the rest of the country and christen her Fuck Yeah McDonald's."

Also, the town's expat business owners - apparently the ones who were most vocal in their protest - can't have it both ways. You can't vie for tourists to flock to your villas, take cooking lessons and hum Om on your verandahs as you serve them faux enlightenment, and then suddenly find a Starbucks to be in violation of the town's spirit. It's only as inauthentic as your infinity pools once were.

Besides, Starbucks has some credible fair trade and wage policies. If they pay their staff better than some local and "local" employers do, then good for them. Shit, I'll go one better. If they benefit the immediate community more than some of the existing businesses do, then I want every damn tour bus to unload their thirsty, "Eat, Pray, Love"- lugging Ubud fan at their doorstep.

(Photo courtesy of DC Allen.)


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